China’s human rights record is under scrutiny, most notably its participation in the genocide of the Uyghurs, an ethnic Muslim minority.
As a result, there has been talk of a possible boycott of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing, with Ned Price, a U.S. state department spokesperson, seeming to indicate earlier this month during a press briefing that the U.S. has interest in a joint boycott with its allies, including Canada.
“It [a boycott] is something that we certainly wish to discuss ... We understand that a co-ordinated approach will be not only in our interests, but also in the interests of our allies and partners,” Price said.
Price and the U.S. State Department later backed away from the comments, saying no discussions have taken place with allies and partners.
KTW spoke to several local athletes to get their take on the issue and how it would feel to have their Olympic or Paralympic dreams postponed or dashed if Canadian athletes were pulled from the Games.
Of those interviewed, Kamloops resident Matt Dunstone is the only athlete trying to qualify for the Beijing Games, a curler whose team is ranked among the world’s best.
“I understand why people would want to boycott the Games. I totally get that,” Dunstone said. “As an athlete on the other side of it, especially knowing how difficult it is to be Team Canada at the Olympics in curling or in any sport, quite frankly, I would have a very difficult time either boycotting them myself or being on board with that decision. The Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. People work four, eight, 12 years, putting everything they’ve got into it, their life on hold, to go. If the Olympics were tomorrow and I was told we were Team Canada, I would be hopping on that plane instantly.”
On Feb. 22, the House of Commons voted to declare the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs a genocide, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstained from the vote.
In addition to the situation with the Uyghurs, two Canadians — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — have been in prison in China since December 2018, their detainment widely thought to be retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is facing extradition to the U.S.
An Angus Reid poll of 5,004 Canadians between Feb. 26 to March 3 found the majority believing there can be no moving forward until the prisoners are released and that Canada should boycott the Beijing Games.
Camille Gagné-Raynauld, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, told the National Post in February that the decision on whether to participate in the Games lies with the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees as they operate independently of the government.
Greg Stewart is a great bet to reach the podium this summer at the Tokyo Paralympics, a 7-foot-2 shot putter who has dedicated much of his life to reaching the Games since 2017.
The Tokyo Paralympics are not in jeopardy due to a boycott, but Stewart was asked for his take on boycotts in general.
“It’s a great question, a tough question,” Stewart said. “You’re putting your whole life on these specific Games. Everybody’s views and opinions are different. What I might feel is wrong or unfair, others might feel different. Canada has been a leader in terms of making a stand. We stand for rights and freedom. If that’s something another country is not participating in, well maybe there is an area to stand on. But, for me, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, man. That’s a great question, a tough question, and I honestly don’t know the answer.”
Kamloops swimmer Patrick Waters is also a Tokyo Paralympics hopeful.
“It’s really tough. Sport is designed to bring us together,” Waters said. “The Olympics bring us together regardless of what our beliefs are. At the same time, I can appreciate why it [a boycott] happened in the past and why it may happen again. I would really struggle with that one. That would be a tough piece of meat to chew on. I’m hopeful that everyone at the table can come to a resolution before then.”
The Kamloops athletes condemn genocide, but it is possible for them to do so and disagree with a boycott, or at least pose questions about the effectiveness of one: Are we just being used as political pawns? Will this boycott exact change?
Prolific mountain biker Catharine Pendrel is aiming to qualify for the Tokyo Games, which would mark her fourth appearance at the Summer Olympics.
“I think that unless Canada goes into a boycott with a unified approach with other nations, then the impact on human rights issues of us boycotting would be very small, if any,” Pendrel said. “It would, however, hugely impact the livelihood of the athletes. Historically, Olympic boycotts have not proven effective. If Canada is serious about addressing human rights issues in China, they need to take a comprehensive approach, rather than a token public political gesture.”
The most recent U.S. Olympic boycott came in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter refused to send athletes to the Olympics in Moscow due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. A total of 66 countries, including Canada, boycotted the Moscow Games, most citing the invasion of Afghanistan.
The Soviet Union countered in 1984 when it and 17 other countries — Warsaw Pact and other allied nations — boycotted the Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles.